July 25 to July 31, 2019
The Syria Update is divided into two sections. The first section provides an in-depth analysis of key issues and dynamics related to wartime and post-conflict Syria. The second section provides a comprehensive whole of Syria review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance.
The following is a brief synopsis of the in-depth analysis section this week:
As of July 30, the Syrian government and Russia have embarked on a new phase in the campaign of airstrikes and shelling in northwest Syria, consistently striking markets, schools, hospitals, and civilian infrastructure; as a result, numerous villages and towns in southern Idleb and northern Hama have been nearly entirely depopulated, and sizeable communities located on frontlines—and increasingly, those located deeper inside Idleb Governorate—have been regularly targeted. According to the latest figures released by OCHA, by mid-July more than 450,000 people had been displaced and approximately 700 had been killed in the offensive; notably, the actual number of those killed and displaced is certain to be significantly higher, as the aerial attacks have dramatically intensified in the past week. Notably, several factors complicate the humanitarian response to the substantial displacement brought on by the latest, ongoing offensive. Most importantly, international support has been channeled primarily to the handful of communities that have resisted complete takeover by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government. These communities are now among the most heavily serviced in northwest Syria, yet they have also been targeted by intensifying bombardment in recent weeks. There is a distinct risk that considerable portions of these communities’ resident populations have already fled or will be forced to flee, and IDP beneficiaries residing in these communities are highly likely to be displaced yet again. To a large extent, the ramped-up offensive will set the tone for upcoming negotiations between the three guarantors of northwest Syria’s ‘de-escalation zone’—Russia, Turkey, and Iran—to be convened at Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) on August 1 and 2. The Astana powers may yet manage to negotiate a workable de-escalation roadmap for the northwest. However, the implementation of such an agreement would be far from guaranteed. More concerning is the possibility that no agreement will be reached; in the event talks fail, there is little reason to hope the bombardment that has become a daily occurence in many communities in northwest Syria will come to an end anytime soon.
The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
- The Government of Syria Ministry of Interior has reshuffled at least 400 generals across the country. The initiative is likely part of a broader Government of Syria effort to regain command and control within military and security institutions.
- An unprecedented suicide attack targeted a Government of Syria checkpoint in Malihet El Attash in western rural Dar‘a Governorate, amid continued security incidents in the governorate. Although the actor responsible for the attack remains unknown, these security incidents are indicative of the restive security situation in the area; however, it remains premature to see the suicide attack, though worrying in its own right, as an indication of a renewed ISIS presence.
- A prominent leader of the Kurdish PYD party announced his party’s acceptance of a 5 km ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria. Nonetheless, considerable disagreement over the ‘safe zone’ remains; Turkish-American negotiations on the issue have proven intractable; and a definitive conclusion to the matter, which both Turkey and Kurdish parties view in an existential light, are unlikely in the near term.
- Israeli missiles targeted several areas in Dar‘a and Quneitra Governorates. The attacks reportedly targeted positions linked to Iranian forces. Israeli missile strikes in Syrian territory are relatively commonplace, and they are expected to continue unabated in spite of efforts by the governments of Syria and Russia to diminish Iranian influence in southern Syria.
- The commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Brigade, Qasem Suleimani, visited Abu Kamal city in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, reportedly to establish a new Iran-affiliated militia to protect local Shia religious sites. The visit speaks to Iran’s deepening efforts to build local popular support to complement its extensive military presence.
- A series of assassination attempts in northeast Syria targeted prominent Arab figures noted for their opposition to the SDF; the attacks followed a meeting between Deir-ez-Zor Military Council and representatives of the U.S.-led coalition. The instability within the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council reflects the wider fissures opening along tribal, ethnic, and political lines in northeast Syria. The degree to which the international coalition is able to contain these pressures will be crucial to the stability of the northeast in the long term.
- The Government of Syria Ministry of Trade reportedly approved the establishment of a new Russian-Syrian contracting company to deal in construction machinery and materials, in addition to directly working on the rehabilitation and installation of industrial, commercial, and service facilities. Similar joint economic projects can be expected, especially as Russian and Iranian business interests seek to capitalize on incentives provided by the Government of Syria amid the continuing lock-out of Western competition due to sanctions and restrictive measures.
- On July 30, the governor of Istanbul reportedly agreed to a slate of new procedures that would allow Syrians to acquire ‘temporary protection’ status in Turkey, albeit outside Istanbul. The easing of restrictions on Syrians in Turkey is likely a temporary reprieve; an August 20 deadline for Syrians registered outside Istanbul to leave the city remains in force, and it is unclear in which Turkish regions unregistered Syrians will be allowed to normalize their status.
Northwest Syria Offensive Intensifies
In Depth Analysis
As of July 30, a step-change in Syrian government and Russian aerial bombardment has displaced significant portions of the civilian populations of several large communities in northwest Syria. On July 26, OCHA reported that in the period from early May (when the bombardment started) to July 14, more than 450,000 people had been displaced; notably, many in this group are likely to have been serially displaced, including opposition-linked and irreconcilable individuals evacuated to Idleb under local reconciliation agreements. More than 700 people have been reported killed during the offensive; however, the actual number of those killed and displaced is certain to be significantly higher, as the aerial attacks have dramatically intensified in the past week. The OCHA statement noted that airstrikes and shelling have consistently targeted medical facilities, markets, schools, and civilian infrastructure; as a result, numerous villages and towns in southern Idleb and northern Hama have been nearly entirely depopulated, and sizeable communities located on frontlines—and, increasingly, those located deeper inside Idleb Governorate—have been consistently targeted. Most notably, on July 19 the Jisr Ash Shughur civil council stated that 35,000 residents—almost the entire civilian population—had fled the community.
To a large extent, the ramped-up bombardment will set the tone for upcoming negotiations between the three guarantors of the northwest Syria ‘de-escalation zone’—Russia, Turkey, and Iran—to be convened at Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) on August 1 and 2. The increasingly tenuous status of agreements to de-escalate tensions in northwest Syria is likely to dominate the negotiations. In May, the Government of Syria—backed by Russian airstrikes—launched the ‘Idleb Dawn’ offensive to recapture northwest Syria from armed opposition groups backed by Turkey. However, in the three months since, Government of Syria forces have made only modest territorial advances. While numerous factors have contributed to the frozen frontlines in northwest Syria, the clearest impediment to further Government of Syria advance is the uncompromising position of Turkey. Turkey continues to provide significant support to armed opposition groups resisting the attempts of Government forces to infiltrate opposition-held territory in southern Idleb and northwestern Hama. Turkey maintains that the few communities that Government of Syria forces captured during the opening stages of the offensive must revert to pre-offensive opposition control. For its part, Russia maintains that Turkey, as the chief implementer of the September 17 demilitarized zone agreement, has failed to carry out key terms, specifically, the opening of the M5 corridor to commercial traffic and the disarming of radical groups in the demilitarized zone. The increased bombardment now taking place in the northwest is largely a manifestation of Russian frustration with these divergent interests.
Several factors complicate the humanitarian response to the substantial displacement brought on by the latest, ongoing offensive. First and foremost, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government remain in effective military and administrative control over nearly every community in northwest Syria. As a result, INGOs and development actors have, justifiably, resorted to highly sensitive risk-aversion strategies. In practice, however, risk aversion and compliance concerns have significantly restricted programming and channeled it primarily to the handful of communities that have resisted complete takeover by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government. Consequently, among the most heavily serviced communities are Ma‘aret An-Nu‘man, Ariha, and Saraqab, which have all negotiated a certain degree of independence from the Salvation Government; worryingly, each has been targeted by intensifying Government of Syria and Russian bombardment in recent weeks. There is now a distinct risk that considerable portions of the communities’ resident populations have already fled or will be forced to flee, and IDP beneficiaries residing in these communities are highly likely to be displaced yet again. Additionally concerning is the deliberate targeting of medical infrastructure in the northwest, which is now severely overstretched. According to OCHA, at least 37 separate incidents in the ongoing offensive and aerial bombing campaign have involved the targeting of medical facilities and personnel.
To a significant degree, the trajectory of the northwest campaign now being waged by the Syrian government and Russia hinges on the outcome of the negotiations at Nur-Sultan. Nearly every round of pervious Nur-Sultan/Astana talks has yielded considerable progress on at least one point of contention among the three powers. However, the status of northwest Syria is not the only topic that will be under discussion in Nur-Sultan. Indeed, since early July, the Turkish and Russian foreign ministries have reiterated statements that an agreement on the composition of the committee to draft a new Syrian constitution is close, and these discussions are likely to be a significant feature of the upcoming trilateral negotiations. Moreover, although past Iranian-Russian-Turkish summits have yielded numerous broad agreements, the implementation of critical details has proven far more challenging. The Astana powers may yet come to terms for a workable de-escalation roadmap in the northwest; however, should such an agreement be reached, implementation would be far from guaranteed. More concerning is the possibility that no accord will be reached. If Nur-Sultan ends without a new agreement, there is little reason to hope the bombardment that has become a daily occurence in northwest Syria will come to an end.
Whole of Syria Review
1. GOS Reshuffles Ministry of Interior
Damascus, Syria: On July 27, local media reported that the Government of Syria’s Minister of Interior, Mohamad Rahmoun, issued at least 400 directives to transfer generals working in his ministry. According to the report, the transfer is unprecedented in the ministry, and at least 100 of the generals affected were high-ranking. Effectively, the directives reassign the officers to new posts elsewhere in Syria; notably, many Syrian military officials are still nominally assigned to opposition or SDF controlled areas, although in many cases they are instead deployed to the nearest area under Government control.
Analysis: The Ministry of Interior decision to reshuffle an unprecedented number of high-ranking officials across the country is likely part of broader efforts to regain command and control in Government military and security structures. It is likely (although there is no direct evidence to establish it beyond doubt) that the reshuffle in the Ministry of Interior is part of a Russian initiative to restructure the Syrian military and intelligence services. The decision comes shortly after the Government reshuffling in early July of the highest levels of the Syrian security-intelligence apparatus, which was largely understood to be a product of Russia’s efforts to reshape Syria’s military and security services. The Ministry of Interior reshuffling is likely to be primarily aimed at disrupting client and patronage networks, reducing infighting, and improving discipline among security forces. Nonetheless, it is important to note that its impact in the short to medium term is hard to predict; the Government of Syria faces numerous challenges in effectively coordinating and controlling its various military and security branches, including access challenges exemplified by nominal postings to opposition- or SDF-held areas, and it is unlikely to attain sufficient capacity to do so in the foreseeable future.
2. South Security Update
Malihet El Attash, Dar‘a Governorate: On July 27, media sources reported that a suicide attack targeted a Government of Syria checkpoint in the vicinity of the Malihet El Attash, in eastern rural Dar‘a Governorate, reportedly killing at least six soldiers. However, local sources indicated that the explosion took place following a clash between the Government of Syria–affiliated 5th Corps and ISIS members during a raid in the area. Relatedly, on July 25 and 26, local sources reported a total of five assasination attempts in Dar‘a Governorate; the attacks targeted members of the Government of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence and 4th Armored Division, as well as former members of armed opposition groups, in Ash-Sharjra, Nahteh, As-Sanamayn, Yadoudah, and Tasil.
Analysis: Although security incidents, including IEDs, VBIEDs, shootings, and kidnappings, are not uncommon in increasngly restive Dar‘a Governorate, the recent suicide attack is unprecedented in the period since the Government of Sytria established control over southern Syria, in July 2018. The actor behind the suicide attack remains unknown. Although the event is significant in its own right, especially under the prevailing security paradigm of the south, it cannot be said to mark a phase change from the assassinations and blasts that have proliferated in the south since the beginning of 2019. As such, speculation as to the presence of ISIS and other extremist groups in the south remains, for now, premature.
3. Northeast Syria ‘Safe Zone’
Al-Hasakeh and Ar-Raqqa Governorates: On July 29, media sources reported that prominent Kurdish politician Aldar Khalil expressed the Democratic Union Party’s acceptance of a 5 km ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria. Khalil insisted on further negotiations about several factors that are critical to the establishment of any border ‘safe zone’, specifically: the composition of the forces to be deployed in the proposed ‘safe zone’; the status of the predominantly Kurdish Afrin region; and “demographic change.” Khalil’s statement coincides with numerous local reports of increased mobilization by Turkish troops and Syrian Democratic Forces on opposite sides of the Syria-Turkey border. Meanwhile U.S.-Turkish negotiations on the creation of a ‘safe zone’ have yet to deliver any substantive progress. Earlier, on July 22, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Turkey was ready to launch a military offensive in northern Syria against YPG/J, ahead of a visit to Ankara by the U.S. special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey.
Analysis: As the political wing of the YPG and the leading faction within the pan-Kurdish TEV-DEM political platform, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has considerable sway over the trajectory of political decisions in northeast Syria, and it is, in some sense, a barometer of political inclinations at the highest level of the Syrian Kurdish political establishment. Nonetheless, the explicit acceptance of a border ‘safe zone’ in principle does not imply that meaningful progress has been made on the outstanding concerns that continue to impede U.S.-Turkey negotiations over northeast Syria. Indeed, both Turkey and the Kurdish Self-Administration view the proposed border zone as an existential issue, and definitive progress to bridge the remaining divide appears unlikely in the near term. Turkey has repeatedly threatened to establish by force a ‘safe zone’ extending 30 km or more into Syria. Nonetheless, Turkey’s readiness (and, more importantly, its willingness) to undertake a direct military offensive in northeast Syria is in doubt. Turkey is capable of deploying considerable leverage in northern Syria via its established links with key tribal leaders and armed groups across much of the Syria-Turkey border. Moreover, an all-out military offensive will come at a high cost, materially and politically, which Turkey is likely to avoid so long as it can achieve its proximate objectives through less costly means. Nonetheless, Turkey’s military operations in Syria have been highly unpredictable, and its actions vis-a-vis the proposed ‘safe zone’ in northeastern Syria remain linked to broader regional and international dynamics.
4. Israeli Missiles Strike Southern Syria
Quneitra and Dar‘a Governorates: On July 24, local and media sources reported that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had launched a series of missile attacks on positions held by Government of Syria forces and Government-aligned and Iran-linked militias in southern Syria. Local sources confirmed that the strikes targeted Tal Hara, in western rural Dar’a Governorate, as well as Quneitra Governorate’s Nab’ El Sakher, Tal Ahmar, and Hadar.
Analysis: The fact that Israeli strikes in southern Syria—and, on limited occasions, as far north as Aleppo—have remained a regular occurrence throughout the past year serves as a clear indication that ongoing efforts by the Syrian government and Russia to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria are unlikely to prevent Israel’s unilateral efforts to that end. The most significant indication of a regional détente over efforts to contain Iran came on June 30, when military and intelligence officials from Russia, Israel, and Syria reportedly met in the Golan Heights to entertain an Israeli proposal for a coordinated effort to counter Iranian influence; however, no tangible changes have since been announced on this issue (see Syria Update July 4–10). As such, Iran-backed militias retain a presence in southern Syria and—despite the most recent downsizing and remobilization of Hezbollah forces, mainly in Rural Damascus—there have been no unambiguous indicators that they will reduce their presence in border areas along the Golan Heights. To the contrary, local sources and media reports indicate that Iranian militias retain a strong presence in southern Syria. To a degree, both Russia and the Government of Syria have been amenable to containing Iran’s influence within Syrian state institutions (see point 1 above). However, the likelihood that these efforts will deter future Israeli airstrikes remains in doubt, and Iran-linked positions in southern Syria—as well as in other parts of Syria—remain a likely target for Israeli strikes in the foreseeable future.
5. Qasem Suleimani Visits Abu Kamal
Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On July 23, media sources reported that the commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Brigade, Qasem Suleimani, had visited Abu Kamal in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. As per the reports, Suleimani visited the area to lay the groundwork for a new militia to be established under the name Liwaa’ Hurras Al-Maqamat (Guardians of Sacred Places Brigade), whose primary function will be to protect Shia religious sites in the area. Suleimani also reportedly met various armed-group commanders, including the heads of the Fatimiyoun Brigade and the Security Committee of Mayadin. Local sources indicated that militias affiliated with Iran are also constructing new bases north of Abu Kamal, while Government of Syria–affiliated militias will reportedly retain their presence inside the city. Relatedly, on July 25 Israeli media reported that progress has been made in the construction of a new border crossing to replace the former Abu Kamal-Al-Qaim crossing; unlike the existing crossing, which passed through the city, new satellite imagery reportedly reveals that the new crossing is several kilometers outside the city.
Analysis: Perhaps nowhere have efforts to solidify Iranian influence in Syria been more successful than in Abu Kamal; Suleimani’s visit affirms not only that Iran is resolute on cementing its military presence, but also that it intends to secure strong popular support in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor. Its efforts in this regard are wide-ranging: service provision, rehabilitation, considerable economic investment, and increasingly, religious outreach. Primarily, however, a strong presence at the Abu Kamal-Al-Qaim border crossing will also be seen as part and parcel of Iran’s regional economic vision, particularly its efforts to secure access to the Mediterranian. However, it is also important to note that such interventions carry a risk; by increasing the local salience (and material importance) of religious identity, they risk triggering future sectarian strife. In general, sectarian affiliation has not played a large role in shaping inter-community dynamics in rural Deir-ez-Zor, where political affiliation and tribal identity have traditionally been far more relevant dynamics. However, ongoing Iranian intervention—and increasingly overt outreach by Saudi Arabia in communities elsewhere in Deir-ez-Zor—threatens to embed sectarian identities more deeply into local economic and social hierarchies.
6. U.S. Seeks Arab Alliance in Deir-ez-Zor
Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On July 25, local and media sources reported the assassination of Yasser Fayyad (aka Yasser Dhaleh), an Arab defector from the SDF. Dahleh’s killing is the latest in a series of assassination attempts in northern Deir-ez-Zor, which took place between July 19 and 23, targeting Arab figures known for their resistance to the SDF. These figures included Abu Bakr Qadsiyeh, reportedly a public proponent of recent clashes between the local population and the SDF in Basira; as well as the secretary to the head of Deir-ez-Zor Military Council. Local rumors implicate the SDF in these assassination attempts; however, Deir-ez-Zor Military Council member Khalil Al-Wahsh was also targeted for assassination, allegedly by community members mistrustful of his relationship with Kurdish forces. As per local sources, the incidents followed the latest meeting between the U.S.-led coalition and Arab notables; reportedly, both Arab and Kurdish supporters of the SDF were excluded from these meetings. The principal demands raised during the meetings were reported to concern the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council’s financial and military independence from SDF and its direct cooperation with the U.S.-led international coalition; the release of former FSA members detained by the SDF; and the release from Al-Hol and Areesha camps of Deir-ez-Zor locals who were detained on the grounds of connection to ISIS.
Analysis: The SDF’s inability to amass popular support in predominantly Arab communities, especially in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, has aggravated existing ethnic tensions and culminated in frequent confrontations with local populations, and, to some extent, within the SDF itself. Tensions between the SDF and the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council point to the growing fractures within the SDF and the increasing fragility of the Self-Administration as a whole. Indeed, the recent U.S. rapprochement with Arab tribes is likely aimed at containing these internal disputes, or bypassing them in order to preserve the Self-Administration’s nominal control over strategically vital oil and gas fields on the east bank of the Euphrates River. The efforts are also, presumably, intended to ward off outreach by the Government of Syria in strategically vital tribal Arab communities. However, a greater Arab role within the SDF, or parallel to it, is unlikely to ameliorate concerns in predominantly Arab communities unless it is accompanied by greater political and administrative autonomy, more comprehensive service provision, and equitable resource distribution.
7. New Russian and Lebanese Companies
Damascus: The Government of Syria Ministry of Trade reportedly approved the establishment of a new Russian-Syrian contracting company, the New Company for Development and Construction, to be based in Rural Damascus. The company will reportedly contract and sell construction machinery and materials, in addition to directly working on the rehabilitation and installation of industrial, commercial, and service facilities. The company is 60 percent owned by the Syrian Development and Construction for Trading and Contracting Company (DCTC) and 40 percent owned by Russian company PetroStroy. Additionally, Atomstroyexport, a Russian nuclear power and equipment-service exporter, reportedly announced that it would establish a new company in Syria, Stroyexport Middle East. Atomstroyexport will reportedly own 50 percent of Stroyexport Middle East, while 50 percent will be owned by two Lebanese businessmen and one Syrian businessman (none of whom have been named publicly). Stroyexport Middle East will reportedly be based in Damascus city and will engage in contracting and construction transactions.
Analysis: The Government of Russia is likely to continue incentivising Russian private sector investment in Syria, as a means of increasing its future role in the Syrian economy. A large number of Russian investments have been undertaken via Government of Syria contractual agreements with Russian companies; these investments are generally focused on natural resource extraction, including oil, gas, and phosphates, as well as infrastructure. So long as EU restrictive measures and U.S. sanctions remain in effect (thus preventing western companies from engaging in Syria), the Government of Syria’s major allies—namely, Russia and Iran—are likely to attempt to secure a quasi-monopoly over opportunities for economic investment in Syria. Joint economic projects and companies, such as these most recent examples, are expected to continue to empower the business class in Syria, although it remains unclear to what degree Russian and Iranian investment will improve the livelihoods of Syria’s population or prevent Syria’s economic deterioration.
8. Restrictions On Syrians In Istanbul
Turkey: On July 30, local media reported that the Governor of Istanbul had agreed to a slate of new bureaucratic procedures that would allow Syrians to acquire ‘temporary protection’ status in Turkey, albeit in communities outside Istanbul, while sweeping deportations to Syria will remain on pause. Following a July 29 meeting with the Governor of Istanbul and the head of the Immigration Directorate, the head of the Forum of Syrian Societies in Turkey, Mehdi Dadoud, said that official circulars pertaining to the decisions would be issued in the coming days. Syrians will reportedly be exempt from previously announced restrictions on travel in Istanbul. Moreover, the sweeping crackdown on unlicensed Syrian workers and those residing in the city without official registration status will reportedly remain on hold. However, an August 20 deadline for Syrians not holding ‘temporary protection’ status in Istanbul to leave the city will reportedly remain in effect. To that end, Turkish authorities will reportedly transfer individuals registered outside of Istanbul to the areas where they possess registration, while unregistered individuals will reportedly be moved to camps, where they will be allowed to apply for registration in other communities.
Analysis: The easing of restrictions on Syrians living in Istanbul without formal registration follows a week of intense crackdown, including sweeping arrests and deportations that have forced many Syrians living in Istanbul to avoid going out in public or using public transportation. However, the reprieve promised by the new procedures will be temporary and limited in scope. Indeed, a wider Turkish policy toward Syrians is taking shape; although deportations to Syria are now on hold, it is now clear that the Government of Turkey will take steps to respond to widespread public calls to reduce the number of unregistered foreign nationals living and working in Istanbul—Syrians, in particular. The August 20 deadline for unregistered Syrians to leave Istanbul is thus likely to be a signature policy going forward. Where, exactly, and under what terms Syrians who currently lack legal status in Turkey will be allowed to register remains an open question.
The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.
The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.